Top 5 Tips to improve your snaps: # 1/5 APERTURE Settings

This is the first of a five part series of articles that aims to give some quick, easy and straight forward tips on how to improve your pictures. This isn't a comprehensive photo course, rather some real tips on how you can get control of your picture taking and improve your general snapshots.

Not everyone wants to faff around with different lenses, lugging a tripod around and getting up at all hours but that doesn't mean you don't want good pictures when you're on holiday, visiting the family or at a party etc.

So, first up is APERTURE settings. Most digital cameras offer the choice to manually adjust your aperture settings, you might find an Av (Canon) or A (Nikon) mode on your camera dial. Or, they offer auto modes that alter the aperture settings without you really knowing it, once you understand the info below you'll be able to apply the correct mode for your creative ideas and understand how they will work.

The aperture is a 'hole' located inside the lens of the camera. The 'hole' or 'diaphragm' is formed by a series of six overlapping blades that make the hole size bigger or smaller depending on their setting. See examples below, note the 'f number' below each size.

You can see that on the lower f numbers; f 2.8 / f 4 for example, the size of the 'hole' is much larger than the smaller f 16 / f 22. This is the important bit: The size of the hole affects how much of the picture is in focus from front to back (depth of field) and how much light is let into the cameras sensor.

Whilst it's very important to understand that the size affects how much light is let into the cameras sensor there is a more important setting which affects that which we'll learn about later, namely shutter speed. For now I want to focus on (get it!?) the other main point; how much of the picture is in focus (from front to back). 

I'm going to keep the next bit really simple as at this point you don't need to know how or why this works, you just need to be able to apply it to a practical situation. So, in the most jargon free terms possible:


Example #1: The lower the f number the smaller the depth of field - Using a low f number (f 2.8 or f 4.0) is great when you want to isolate your subject for creative effect. Example below:

f 4.0 for 1/1250 sec

The image above was shot at f 4.0 - you can see that the flower (the main subject) is sharply in focus and the mountain scenery behind is blurred. This is because the lower f number reduces the depth of field. This is a nice effect and works well with people, animals, flowers etc or in any situation where the background is either messy or distracts the viewer from the main subject.

Tip!: Be very careful that you focus correctly using your auto focus or manual focus on the main subject, otherwise you'll have the wrong part of the image in focus, and the rest will be out! If using a small 'point and shoot' digital camera you may have to point it at your subject and half depress the shutter to 'lock' the focus on your subject, then re-compose the scene with your finger still half depressing the button and when you're ready fire away!

Example #2 - The higher the f number the larger the depth of field - Using a higher f number (f 11 upwards to f 22) is best when you want to show the whole scene in sharp focus. Example below:

f 14 for 1/200 sec

This image was shot at f 14, you can see that the mountains in this example are in focus but also the person near the front of the scene is also in focus, so the depth of field is quite large (the opposite effect to the flower example). Using a higher f number is usually best when taking landscape shots as you often want to show the foreground, mid and background in focus.

Tip!: It's also important that you focus in the right place, even with a larger f number. The general tip is to focus 1/3 of the way into the shot to ensure front to back sharpness.


So, take a look at your camera and see if you can find the Av (Canon) or A (Nikon) aperture priority mode - this will let you set the aperture/f number manually to suit your creative ideas. Helpfully, this is the only setting you will manually change in aperture priority mode, the camera will take care of the rest (shutter speed, ISO etc) automatically.

If your camera only has pre-programmed settings then switch it to 'Landscape' mode when you want a larger f number effect (greater depth of field) and switch it to the image of a flower or human head when you want the smaller f number effect (small depth of field).

Try and get creative with this and fire off a few test shots in the garden or park etc, don't move around just change the Aperture settings and focus on the same subject. You should see the difference in the pictures as you move up the f numbers, mastering this is part 1 of improving your snaps.

Join us next time for #2 Shutter Speed! We'll cover how to get that dreamy blurred water effect and how to capture fast moving objects in sharp focus every time!

Recommended Reading:

The Digital Photgraphy Book Vol 1 - Scott Kelby (click here)

Understanding Exposure - Bryan Peterson (click here)

Digital Landscape Photography - Michael Frye (click here)